Foster parents vital to child welfare system
During her years as a teaching assistant at Washington Early Childhood school in Urbana, Kristen Burd worked with a number of children in the state's foster care system. After she retired, she fulfilled her longtime dream of becoming a foster mother.
"I always thought that was something I could do. I could take one of these kids into my home and give them the structure and the love that they need," said Burd, a lifelong Potomac resident.
Burd received her license in December 2009 and her first foster child the following April. Since then, she has fostered five children, three of whom are still in her care and two of whom she plans to adopt.
Burd and her late husband, Sherman, weren't able to have children. After caring for her foster children anywhere from three weeks to 2 years, she said she can't imagine loving a biological child any more than she does them.
"As soon as they came into my home, they became my kids," said Burd, whom they call "mom" or "mama" by choice. "They will always be my kids whether they return home or not. They will always have that place in my heart."
Officials with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and partnering nonprofit agencies say foster parents like Burd are a vital part of the child welfare system.
"Without them, we wouldn't be able to fulfill our mission of caring for the 15,000 kids in the state who are in our care right now," spokeswoman Jennifer Florent said.
There's also a dire need for more foster families, officials said. During May, which is National Foster Care Month and Foster Parent Appreciation Month in Illinois, they're hoping to raise awareness about that need and encourage more people to step up.
Each year, there are more than 4,000 children who have been abused and neglected and cannot remain with their families safely, according to DCFS. Reports indicate that 71 percent of the need is downstate, and most children needing placement are under age 6.
In late April, 149 abused and neglected children in Champaign County were in traditional foster homes, 135 were in a relative's home and 87 were in institutions or group homes, according to DCFS reports. In Vermilion County, 54 abused and neglected children were in traditional homes, 97 were in a relative's home and two were in institutions or group homes.
"We're always looking for good homes," said Lori Owen, a licensing worker for the Center for Youth and Family Solution in Danville, which provides foster care services.
Owen said the area especially needs licensed caregivers who will take in teenagers.
"Especially teenagers who have behavioral problems or psychiatric issues. They can be very hard to place," she said.
There's also a need for placements for larger sibling groups, Owen said.
"When you have three, four and sometimes more siblings, it gets very difficult to keep them together," she said, adding that's always a priority. "It minimizes the trauma of (being taken from their home and parents) and gives them a support system and a familiar face" when they move to an unfamiliar setting.
Florent said the number of licensed foster families ebbs and flows. Numbers decline when "career" foster parents who have cared for hundreds of children get older and retire, parents adopt a child or children they are fostering and close their license and others move out of the area.
DCFS created 20 new recruitment and resource specialist positions under its reorganization, Florent said. They will work with community partners to expand the availability of foster care homes.
"The focus will be to recruit specific individuals that can meet the needs of a particular child or youth in order to provide stability and permanency for that child," she said.
The department also holds recruitment activities at community events all over the state, Florent said. "However, it seems that the best way to recruit foster parents is by word of mouth from other foster parents."
The Center for Youth and Family Solutions, which took over cases from Catholic Charities when it closed its foster care program, also is working to get its name out in the community and publicize its Foster and Adoptive Parent informational meetings, Owen said. The meetings are held at 5:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month at the center, 102 N. Robinson St., Danville, to provide people with information on becoming a foster parent and the licensing process.
Foster parents must be at least 21 years old. They can be married, single, divorced or legally separated.
While the needs are great, to ensure the safety of children, those interested in becoming foster families are required to:
— Participate in a home inspection and social assessment.
— Complete 27 hours of training focused on foster care and the needs of children who are in foster care.
— Undergo a criminal background check. This includes the applicant and other family members living in the home.
— Be financially stable.
— Provide medical reports including medical and mental health histories.
— And other requirements.
Most importantly, Florent said, foster families must be able to support the goal for the children placed in the home and assist in the reunification of children with their parents.
In turn for providing wards of the state with a safe, nurturing environment, DCFS and its partners provide a range of assistance to families:
— Caseworkers to meet the child and foster family's particular needs.
— Health insurance coverage for children through Medicaid.
— Therapeutic, educational, recreational and crisis support services.
— Training programs, support groups and newsletters geared to foster families.
— A monthly stipend for the child's basic needs including food, clothing and household costs.
— Additional payments for day care services if eligible, after-school care and extracurricular activities.
— And access to DCFS staff available through the Foster Parent Helpline (866-368-5204) and Advocacy Office (800-232-3798) for additional support.
Owen believes some people may be intimidated by the licensing process, which typically takes four to six months.
A foster family home license is valid for four years unless revoked by the department or voluntarily given up by the licensee, Florent said. Each foster parent also must complete an additional 16 hours of approved training for renewal.
"It's quite cumbersome," Owen said. But "our kids go through so much trauma. We have to make sure the homes they're going into safe, nurturing homes."
Others may be concerned by the cost.
"This isn't about making money; it's about caring for our children," Owen said, adding the monthly stipend — $384 per child per month to $471 depending on the age, or higher for kids with specialized needs, according to DCFS — doesn't really cover all the expenses. "You will have to dig into your own pocket.
"It's a big responsibility," Owen continued, adding it's not for everyone. "Children who come into care are traumatized kids. You have to have the personality to handle that. You have to be very understanding and patient."
"You have to want to do this," Florent said, adding many foster parents just want to help children and make a positive impact on their lives.
"Even if a child is with you for only a short amount of time, you can make a huge impact on them," she said. "Maybe you're the one who sat down and read with that child for 20 minutes a night, and they develop a love for books and reading. Maybe you're the one who took the time out to really ask the child about their feelings and got them to open up about something and work through something they're going through in their life."
While Burd helped her brother raise his son, this was her first chance to become a full-time mom. She said she's been lucky to develop strong bonds with all of her kids, even her first, a Hispanic boy who only stayed three weeks before he was placed in a Spanish-speaking home along with his siblings.
Next came a little girl, who stayed for 2 years before she was able to return to her home. Burd took in a boy, now 3, in May 2011 and his older brother, now 5, the following February.
A couple of weeks ago, the boys went with Burd to pick up the family's newest addition, a 3-year-old girl.
While the state's goal is to reunite children with their families, that's not always possible. That's what happened in the boys' case.
Burd remembers last fall, when their caseworker told her that one parent signed away parental rights and the other had them terminated. Then she asked Burd if she would be interested in offering them a permanent home.
"I didn't have to think twice," said Burd, who is starting the adoption process.
Earlier this month, Burd's friend adopted two boys. The friend invited Burd and her foster sons to attend the hearing.
Burd recalled their conversation after the adoption was over, and they were walking to their car.
"Mama, is that going to be us?" the younger boy asked.
"Yes, that's what we're going to do before long," she answered.
"OK, then I'll be yours forever," he said.
"You're already mine forever," she said, tears filling her eyes.
Even after she adopts the boys, Burd sees herself continuing as a foster mom for several more years.
"I have said a few times that God has put this in front of me, so I'm going to honor him by doing what I'm supposed to do and love every minute of it. And even when I'm pulling my hair out, I am loving every minute of it," she said with a laugh.
"When they look at you and say out of the blue, 'Mama, I love you,' or they give you a big hug or just look at you when they're falling asleep, those are the rewards."
Agency to hold events for foster parents
Be Strong Families is starting its second year of working with foster parents and families in Vermilion County.
The nonprofit organization will host a series of Foster Parent Cafes from 6 to 8 p.m. on May 13, June 10 and July 8 in the Town Hall room of the Danville Township Building, 101 W. North St., Danville.
Light refreshments will be available.
"It's just a really great opportunity for foster parents to network with each other and learn about the resources in their community that are available to them," said Robyn Harvey, Be Strong Families' foster parent coordinator.
"It's a safe place where parents can share their experiences without being judged and criticized, share ideas and learn from each other," added Guy Schingoethe, the organization's chief operating officer.
Harvey said each event will focus on a different topic. May's is taking care of yourself, June's is being a strong parent and July's is building a strong relationship with your children.
Be Strong Families, which grew out of Strengthening Families Illinois, introduced the cafes several years ago to educate parents about five research-based protective factors aimed at strengthening families, enhancing child development and reducing abuse and neglect, Schingoethe said.
The protective factors include parent resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete supports in times of need, and social and emotional competence of children.
Schingoethe said the cafes also aim to build positive relationships between parents and those who provide early childhood and family-strengthening programs, and encourage parents to lead cafes in their communities in the future.
"It's our goal to train Danville parents to facilitate their own group" so it can continue well into the future, Harvey said.
She added she would like to see every foster parent in the county involved.
Foster parents may RSVP to The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in Danville at 443-3200.